By Stefanie Sears
In its seventh year, a pen pal club at The Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled WAE (Wellness, Arts, Enrichment) Center in West Orange is providing
lessons in writing that go a long way.
The JSDD, which provides a professional staff of specialists to run programs for adult students with disabilities, allows individuals to enjoy favorite past times such as art, field trips, acting and knitting to even cooking and writing to people on the other side of the globe through its international Pen Pal Club.
“JSDD’s Wae Center has been created as an extension of the larger agency creating time and space where members can grow, develop friendships, find meaning and purpose in their daily life and in so doing become more self-expressive,” says Marilynn Schneider, the WAE Center Director. “We have seen this growth in all of our members that is unique to each. Just as you and I might learn from our life experience so do our members. The staff I work with are individuals that believe in and support the philosophy of JSDD that all people have potential when given the opportunity in a supportive environment.”
The programs consist of various artistic and beneficial pastimes. These include the studio art activities for painting, drawing, digital artwork, photography, sculpture, workshops, construction, and jewelry design, gallery and museum tours, comic book shop field trips, acting classes and theatre outings, photography, computers, radio, film screenings, poetry and spoken word, Women’s Knitting Circle, canoe trips, cooking and nutrition, geography, glee club, yoga and meditation and writing.
Regarding writing, John Skillin, a retired librarian at Montclair Public Library and current part time Activities Associate at Van Dyk Manor, is one such facilitator specialist. He joined the WAE Center more than 12 years ago when they began the Sunday afternoon film screening and discussion series. He has been teaching basic writing skills, Theater of the Mind and Music of Old Broadway at the Center since 2007.
In Nov. 2010, Skillin began coordinating an international Pen Pal Club, a feat brought about by his students Narcisa and Christina.
“Two of my students approached me with the idea of starting a Pen Pal Club in 2010,” says Skillin. “As a teacher of basic writing skills, this seemed a perfect fit for me. We presented their plan to the school’s director, Marilynn Schneider, who gave us her seal of approval. In the beginning, the two young women and I wrote our first letters alone. In a way, the club could be a course in basic writing skills. Some of my students had never written a letter before. Sending an old-fashioned postal letter with the expectation of receiving a reply has been a powerful incentive to learn how. Once colorful foreign mail began to arrive at the school, other students took notice and asked to be included. The arrival of our daily mail delivery is always an occasion of keen interest and excitement. Some students begin asking me if the mail has come the first thing in the morning, although we rarely see our letter carrier before noon.”
Right now the Pen Pal Club has a fluid membership, with fix or six solid members and others who participate more sporadically. One of the students, Alicia, who appears to be fascinated with royalty, chose to write to Queen Elizabeth twice and both times received responses signed by ladies-in-waiting on beautiful Buckingham Palace stationery, Skillin describes. Alicia has reached out to other monarchs and is awaiting their response. The Pen Pal Club’s other longstanding members are Marcie and Jessica. Marcie has been corresponding with a woman in Poland for several years and Jessica has pen pals in England, Italy and South Africa.
“We usually search various websites to make contact with people who seem to share our interests,” says Jessica. “Once an invitation is accepted, we like to start writing real letters with pen and paper.”
The Pen Pal Club has pen pals, or pen-friends as Skillin calls them, in plenty of countries, including Thailand, Russia, Austria, Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Estonia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Turkmenistan, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Brazil, the Philippines, the UK and the island of Guam.
“We’ve had so many wonderful pen pals over the past seven years,” says Skillin. “Two young woman in Thailand and another in Russia have been with us from the beginning. We had a pen pal on the Isle of Jersey (now deceased) who sent lovely gifts and knew more about the early history of New Jersey than any of us did.”
The purpose of the Pen Pal Club is to develop a connection with individuals from other parts of the world and learn about different cultures. Participants find their pen-friends online, particularly a site called Interpals.net.
“In my role as club moderator I assist many of the members in finding a good match and writing their letters,” explains Skillin. “The club holds a weekly meeting, but I try to make myself available for letter-writing and reading at other times as well.”
The Pen Pal Club incorporates other creative forms as well in their letters.
“I encourage all my students to learn the art of corresponding the old-fashioned way – with pen and paper,” says Skillin. “Our letters are often decorated with markers or stickers. We may also exchange photos, poems, sketches, or scenic post cards.”
Narcisa and Christina have long since moved on from WAE, but the Pen Pal Club continues to thrive from their idea.
“Remembering their initial enthusiasm, though, I’d say they were inspired by the feeling that the entire world was open to us, that we could find friends in the most exotic places, thousands of miles from New Jersey, and learn about their lives, native cultures and traditions.”
In the JSDD school library, a world map on display is filled with colored pins, each one representing a pen pal.
The Pen Pal Club meets Wednesdays at 12:30.